Friday, October 30, 2009

Greatest Acid Movies #18: THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964)

When it comes to seasonal horror movies, there are two kinds of creepy - the Jason Voorhees/zombie creepy and the Boris Karloff-Vincent Price creepy. The latter is what I prefer, for it comes with a sly wink that lets you know when the bodies are counted yours won't be one of them. Price and Karloff make the viewer an insider, a friend in the RICHARD III tradition of horror. The horror of Karloff and Price in other words, is inclusive. Part of this comes with possessing the theatrical "voice" of villainy. As I live near the the Lee Strasberg School of Acting (just north of Union Sq.) I'm daily reminded of its slogan: "We entered the theater on the wings of a dream." Price, by contrast, enters our dreams on the wings of the theater. He dispels nightmares by the force of mellifluent theatrical ham diction; an inherent giddiness in his velvet voice makes him seem always as if it's somebody's special birthday and a surprise party is imminent. 

Voice is everything in a Price film; the more he talks the less scary the film, but the more fun. Jason would lose a lot of his menace if he spoke; imagine him making dumb bon mots through his hockey mask and half the horror is lost. The silent treatment is scary, but it's a depressing kind of scary. With his faux- fiendish laugh Price really just pretends to be scary. He lets you in on the joke and in doing so eliminates "real" scariness, which is why his films are above all, delightful. The zombies of Romero and his imitators just eat you; unlike le gourmand Price, they don't give a shit how you taste. Nothing slows them down as they stagger and chomp. If you want to get Price off your scent, just toss him a piece of scenery; he'll gladly chew it in your stead.

In MASQUE especially, Price is the picture of an amazing party host. As the debauched Prince Prospero he's having a ball, albeit one with a guest list of gluttons, slavering toadies and ennui-ridden perverts. Being the only one with anything close to a genuine wit in the whole place (aside from Hop Toad), Prospero relies on his higher purpose--the serving of his dark master Satan--to keep him from getting depressed. Prospero might indulge himself with vice occasionally, but it's always for a point, a spiritual debasing as suits his dark lord's whims; his macabre jests indicate an aesthete beyond petty concerns of life and death as opposed to merely gratifying grisly whims and petty lusts (ala CALIGULA), which are embodied in the far more crass lord played by Patrick McGee (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE).

Of course, there's a hardened production code burden this Prospero must bear. For all his freedom, he can't show us any nudity or open wounds. And all McGee has to do is suggest there's "other things" to be done in the name of evil besides silky talk and he's basically marked for death. And what a death! When you find Hop Toad give him ten gold pieces as reward for his magnificent jest!


In short this is the movie that THE PARTY and THE WILD PARTY and THE WILD ANGELS (Corman, 1966) try to be. MASQUE's Prospero and ANGEL's Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda) actually have a lot in common: each is a charismatic natural leader (a stand-in for Corman himself?) forced to endure the uncouthness of their worshipful minions, bound to lead packs of dimwitted trogs who've mistaken their gluttonous earthly lusts for true freedom. Compare the hilariously disturbing scene wherein Prospero orders his guests to roll around on the floor (like the filthy animals they are) to the climax of ANGELS where the gang trashes a church in a drunken orgy of destruction. Heavenly's admonition to the priest, "We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man... and we wanna get loaded... and we wanna have a good time." is not dissimilar to Prospero's decrees, such as: "If a God of love and light ever did exist, He is long since dead. Someone... some...thing rules in his place."

We like Prospero the same way we like Heavenly Blues: we relish their graceful power and admire their lack of insecurity, their ability to be beyond good and evil rather than just spouting hipster credos to brave souls are, like us, caught between the dull conformity of good (Zzzz) and the banal destructiveness of evil (zzzz), aching for amusement, and too jaded to be satisfied with the gauche pleasures indulged in by their pack.

I say these things because I was the same way in my band. For me and some of us in the group, sex, drugs and rock and roll were a way to expand the mind and get loaded and not be hassled by the man. For a lot of our hairy fans it was a chance to get heheheh fucked up! Wooo! Mexican Mud! Yeah! In that sense, Prospero prefigures Timothy Leary, the acid generation, and the later 'e' generation. And thus MASQUE is one of the most legit psychedelic horror movies until THE TRIP! Do you doubt it? Can you not look at Corman's MASQUE and not think of some far away rave or acid test of your dreams?

Consider the Satanic initiation of Hazel Court in the film: desperate to regain Prospero's favor after the arrival of lovely Jane Asher, Court undergoes a private ceremony where she is "stabbed" by a series of shamanic figures from throughout the ages: there's an Egyptian, Japanese, African, and Russian shaman/ghost, all waving their scythes and knives over her prostrate immobile heaving buxom figure, distorted through sheet metal reflection and green tinting. With it's thumping Rite of Spring-y Les Baxter score (later ripped by John Williams -- see if you recognize it!), this scene should be familiar to anyone whose ever dropped hardcore psychedelics (or had a really bad fever) and had to undergo similar life/death blurring at the hands of "the threshold dwellers" before they could be free. And once you face those grinning demon dervishes and are ripped to shreds symbolically (but it sure feels real to you) then you are free...for awhile, anyway.

Similarly, anyone whose ever tried to have a cultivated evening of psychedelically enhanced dancing, talking and group sex only to have the vibe ruined by the late-inning arrival of pinks, townies, burnouts, jonesers and/or wallies will cheer when Patrick McGee's (left) beady-eyed little ballerina molester receives grisly retribution at the hands of Hop Toad (Skip Martin). And who can fail to notice how Charles Beaumont's clever screenplay casts the humble Christians of the village as dull whiners while Prospero remains ever-complex and witty? Like Richard III, Prospero may be "evil" but he's the one taking the trouble to invite you along and to keep the film you're watching full of interesting bits of business. That is, until death comes for him and he has to face the ultimate threshold dwellers all by himself, covered in red paint and forced to participate in modern expressionist dance!

If you still doubt the lysergic glory of this movie, remember three things: 1. It's got one of the best scores ever from Les Baxter / 2. It's genuine Poe - which means you can smell the absinthe from across the sea of time / 3) Nicholas Roeg does the cinematography (lots of great camera movement); and 4) Jane Asher was once engaged to Paul McCartney.

Asher is pretty good as the girl who feels her morality gradually crumble in the thrall of Prospero's seduction strategies. In real life, she broke off her and Paul's engagement when she realized Prospero, I mean Paul, was way too much of a libertine. She wanted something more old-fashioned and monogamous. Somehow it's very apropo to the film, don't you think? As she says early on, "I have no learning!"

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

To become a shroomer: MATANGO: AKA Attack of the Mushroom People (1963)

A bunch of Japanese libertines on a yacht get lost in a freak storm (ala Gilligan's Island) and wind up marooned on a strange island populated only by a derelict cargo ship run aground along the rocky coast and.. a population of growing, giggling, intelligent super-fungi. The derelict ship's log reveals the mushroom in question has harmful "nerve" effects, but man, is it filling and delicious! Those who take a nibble soon go insane and like to frolic in the rain with their red-capped brethren. PS- there's nothing else to eat on the whole damned island.

The best scenes in the film involve the mushroom people with their pitch-shifted slow mo laughter and the amazing, corrosively sexual sight of the mushrooms growing out of the moss, larger and larger, breathing in and out, like inflatable penis dolls. Whoa, was that too much association for you? Grow up, these are Japanese! You know what Cibo Matto sang:


We were born in the 60's
You made war with the Vietnamese.
We love LSD! We die easily!
Can we just say c'est la vie?

Do I digress? Cibo Matto are my age, they know the drill. We were born in the late 1960s and we're still wondering where the hell the party or the war or the drugs all went. MATANGO, dig, was made even before the party really started, 1963.
Alas, those awesome scenes are only a small portion of the film. The psychedelic aspect is kind of subsumed into the horror of transformation, as those who eat the fungi become the fungi, but wait... not to kill the others, but to kill their souls... slowly... and rather than explore that change we concentrate instead on the intolerant last man standing, the narrator relating his story in the Ishameal-esque framing device. Thus we sidestep many lightshows and hallucinations (though there are a few) to focus on quick-moving, exposition-filled narrative, one familiar to horror fans: a yacht with class-related tensions between crew and rich hedonist owner; a freaky sudden hurricane-level storm; an uncharted, seemingly uninhabited island; mounting sexual tension; and hidden monsters. True to horror movie form there's a lot of exploring - we spend quite a bit of time looking around moldy freighter interiors, but there's lots of great outdoor rain scenes. By the end you may feel the need to change your socks, or blow-dry your shoes.

Overall, the greed and "collapse of decency" elements trump the trippy stuff so those in search of a less angry fix might want to keep browsing. That said, the end more than makes up for it all with a blatant pro-drug message that succinctly damns modern society as being far more corrosive and wrong than any entheogenic Japanese version of ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS mind-meld (and this was 1963, a solid four years before the Summer of Love).

I remember seeing this on late night UHF TV a lot in the 1970s, in a butchered, dubbed edition known as ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE and always found it a tedious, weird late night sleep-inducer but seeing MATANGO now on beautiful widescreen DVD, I wonder what the hell was going on in that UHF version? Was it on purpose that it made no sense? Then again, I was very young, and usually half-asleep; the rain outside hypnotizing me into a moldy funk. If you were ever funky like that, you'll want to score yourself some MATANGO.

PS - It would make a 'good' triple bill with SHE DEMONS and MESA OF THE LOST WOMEN!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

BAD ACID 70s-80s, Part III: Drive-In Dream Logic, Italian-style!

(For the HUGO STIGLITZ MAKES MOVIES BLOGATHON)
By the 1970s the drive-in had become synonymous with two things: teenage sex in cars and Italian horror movies. Lord knows how many young women lost their virginity while Dario Argento movie Goblin-soundtrack cues echoed tinnily from the ominous gray speakerbox on their car window, and onscreen, far away, some nubile victim getting opened up like a can of screaming sardines. She's just a dead girl, not yet a drunk, stoned woman! Oh wait, now she is.

It's endlessly amusing to hear film critics complaining about what we Italian film fans call "dream logic" and what they call "lazy incompetence." They don't understand it because, most likely, they're Americans outside major cities, for whom the "Tower of Babel" effect is unknown, so they don't appreciate the need for non-lingual story-telling devices, and they didn't see the film first at a drive-in while on acid or erection-enhancing stimulants purchased under the counter at a local pharmacy... If they only saw ZOMBIE or SUSPIRIA sober, they never really saw it at all... or saw too much of it, which might be worse. Cinema is not always meant to be studied under a geek magnifying glass, sometimes a movie needs to just be there, doing its own thing, providing you the scant light to pick the seeds out of your stash. An Italian horror movie wants to provide a nice canopy of gore and rock music for you to hide out under and get your freak on. It wants to scare you and rock you out, regardless of whether or not you speak its language or missed the first 40 minutes, or aren't even going to pay any attention to it whatsoever. If you decide to look up and pay attention, WHAM! it's instantly ready to pounce on your nerves and never let up. Meanwhile it's shocking enough to make sure your mom doesn't insist you take your little brother
along.

From that standpoint, the strung together gross-outs of Lucio Fulci--in films like ZOMBIE or THE BEYOND--particularly, make total sense. There's an unspoken assumption in most drive-in fodder that viewers are going to miss at least 40% of what's onscreen (these films were made before VCRs and "pause" buttons); they're going to be off at the snack bar; looking for an elusive condom in the glove compartment, trying to get a chance to use it; or hanging with friends by the swing set under the screen; doing whippets and ripping one-hits and getting ripped on copped 40s. Super loud rock scores function to drown out conversations from other cars, to reach you through steamy, cracked window panes and hormonal surges, cars coming in and out of parking spots next to you, or honking to each other, perverts creeping up to your windows and trying to peep through the passenger window and so much more. Lastly, the films need to work even for the kids watching the screen through binoculars from their bedroom windows uphill from the highway (as I used to do!)

That's all fine with Fulci and Argento. Their goal is to deliver a spookshow the way 2001 was a "Space Odyssey," or FANTASIA an animation extravaganza. No linear plot is needed when the theater space has become a show unto itself. But if you should decide to look up at the screen, the Italians promise there will be something sick up there to rivet your eyes... man, JAWS VS. ZOMBIES??? Whoa! What kind of exposition do you need for that? That's the Italian horror way and it served the automobile sexed-up American youth market quite well... .

Seen today in the privacy of our own homes on deluxe widescreen digital with booming 5.1 stereo, we're hip to every little flaw in the Italian horror mise-en-scene. Film snobs recognize and bemoan missing scenes or improper aspect ratio formatting while they dig little weirdnesses like the German language signs plastered around New Orleans for an Italian film (THE BEYOND). But at the drive-in, the mere fact that a film could be scary at all was testament to its over-the-top power. These aren't "films" - they're "sight and sound extravaganzas." You don't criticize your own nightmares for being nonsensical, so don't do the same for these films, just let the room be dark, the drugs prescribed by a reliable physician, the coupling steamy, and the volume loud enough to wake the dead.

MORE ACIDEMIC WRITING on ITALIAN HORROR:

Cinebollically, Dario: FOUR FLIES ON GRAY VELVET
"Argento's films--even at their worst--are never "safe" and always rich in moral ambiguity: Good guys are hipster artists driven to risk their friends' lives in finding the killer, more out of perverse fascination than genuine empathy for the victims; the killers have their reasons--usually mental illness caused by brutal child abuse, and police hardly matter, except as deadpan mashers waiting around on the sidelines with their pages of red herring exposition."

"Why Don't You Call Your Insects?" PHENOMENA!
"It takes all the hot topics of the early 1980s/late 1970s and mashes em up real nice for a tasty b-movie stew: chimps avenging their slain masters (with a razor found in the park trash can), THE SWARM-style bug attacks, CARRIE-esque telekenetic revenge against bratty schoolmates (replete with wind blowing the hair back ala FIRESTARTER), deformed Jason-like freaks, flaming lakes, beheadings, maggots, POV killers shots with a knife on a pole ala PEEPING TOM, etc., all scenically filmed around the base of the Alps in what wheelchair bound Donald Pleasance dryly refers to as "the Transylvania of Switzerland."


Get in my Arachnid Black Belly: BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA:
"It would all be just much ado about nothing, except for the aforementioned Morricone score, which provides a cacophonic counterpoint whenever it can. You don't even need a story when Ennio is at the top of his game like he is here: all crumbling electric guitars, atonal mashes of the keyboard, deep breathing and and wheezy organs, he catches and balances the woozy mise-en-scene the way a patient friend might help a stumbling drunk to his car."


An Argento Family Reunion: MOTHER OF TEARS
"Having Asia Argento in the film is a major key to unraveling the mystery of how to make it an enjoyable viewing experience. She's a mess in this movie, looking weary and bemusedly resigned, like the cool older sister you drag through the haunted house you've made in the basement rec room, — the sort with candles and blindfolds, where you make them stick their hands in cold spaghetti and tell them it's brains. We did that a lot in the 1970s, and Argento's family probably did too."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bad Acid's Greatest part 2: The 70s Savagery Switchpoint

Every time I see a horror film with besieged campers or cowerers in closets as slashers hack away at Venetian blinds, I instinctively and fervently hope that these clingers to civilized trappings will work up the nerve to shed their veneers and get physical, to fight back against their assailants and not pule and snivel as they do so. Usually these snivelers eventually pick up a crowbar and fight back and pretty soon instead of seeing the victims react to scary noises we see the killer react to scary noises! The worm has turned! The hunter has become the hunted.

But how long until that 'switchpoint' in the 'good' character's de-evolution? How much endless whining and waiting for the cavalry must we endure before the fighting back can begin? Is this some kind of a metaphor or subtextual neo-con brainwashing or liberal artsy rationalization for lurid thrills, or what?

So I saw WRONG TURN (2003) a by-the-numbers hillbilly horrorshow with Middle Earth connotations (the scenery is beautifully photoshopped and one of the mutant inbred killers even looks a bit like the Gollum) and plenty of endearing character development. Or so somebody thought. Our handsome, straight toothed heroes run and cover a good deal of attractive West Virginia mountain country before they decide to stand up and slug it out with their mutant cannibal assailants, and at that point the picture changes to a out and out smack-down, replete with Eliza Dushku barb-wired to the bed while our square-jawed Desmond punches mutant latex with his bare knucks. Don't forget to steal the shotgun! Oops, they forgot. Too bad the editor can't just trust a shot to play out for more than half a second, and has to endlessly cut back and forth between a bunch of different fight scenes all going on at once, something that always cuts tension down to a guitar pick. D.W. Griffith would rise from his grave if he knew how inescapable crosscutting has become!

A good editor knows that it's much harder to edit within the real time of a single scene with multiple shots and perspectives--some of which may not match or otherwise suck--than it is to match one good shot in one scene right over to a shot from another scene and back again, a strategy that eliminates any need to match shots. Some might say that's pretty sloppy. But I say to err is human, to forgive divine. Right, Spats?


I took a long time seeing THE HILLS HAVE EYES remake because I despised the implied sexual subjugation in the poster art--(above) which I had to walk past to and from my train to work every day for a month or so.  It reminded me of the sleazy detective magazine covers from the 1960s-70s that have since disappeared but were genuinely misogynistic and disturbing (lots of photos of half-naked females in bondage, their eyes wide with genuine fear, a male hand with a knife at their throat, etc. For examples, take a deep breath, be over 18 and click here).

I remember the 1974 Wes Craven original HILLS from a midnight screening in the late 1980s and I remember it displaying a kind of contempt for violence in its manic-eyed freeze frame fade-out when the civilized father turns savage to defend his family with a hammer. It's a phony contempt; director Wes Craven displays it like a pretentious art student rationalizing his misogyny. If you show cathartic revenge that gets the audience cheering every slice and crunch, it's exploitation. But, if you then make the audience feel bad about it, it's art. Craven thinks such conetmpt shows he's cognizant of Vietnam when he makes a broken down camper suburban dad howl like a lunatic as he's bashing a mutant to death with a hammer! As they said to the Germans at Bastogne: Nuts.

We lost Vietnam because we were afraid to go all the way--as in insane, like Colonel Kurz. He went all the way. Never get out of the boat, absolutely goddamn right, unless you were going all the way. And going all the way--accessing the inner savage--is something every man must do occasionally, lest he get all soft and fearful like Tobey McGuire in SPIDERMAN or dear, dear Master Frodo. The kingdom gets weak and they have to send Willard upriver to seek the holy grail. Kurz would have impaled those hobbits on stakes and used them as tiger bait. As Mrs. Zombie said in THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, "it's all mental!"

And let's think for a minute of the simple cannibals who are just hunting for food and when all is said and done are truer capitalists and therefore more American than their soft suburban prey. I love this reach out to the mutant cannibal community from James Rocci (Cinematical):
The hill-dwelling radioactive mutant cannibal community has never – really – gotten a fair, nuanced portrayal in film; it's just the stereotypes you see in the movies coming out of Hollywood. ...
While the plight of the mutant cannibal community leaves me relatively unmoved, I do feel personally connected to this "switch" button point of which I speak, and the liberal need to condemn it as savage. When civilized trappings and fear -- the "waiting for mom or the cavalry to come" passivity in the face of danger -- finally disappears and is replaced by lunatic ferocity and animal cunning you actually become more mature, vs. remaining dependent on the police department like a little bitch. As a kid who grew up terrified of slashers in the slasher-filled  early 1980s (see my FRIDAY THE 13TH Blogathon entry), I always had knives and blunt instruments handy when I was alone in the house. My inner savage was ready, bro!

The trick with self-defense, I knew even then, is a swift offense. If someone comes at you with a whip, for example, don't strive to stay at exact cracking distance like all the simperers in horror cinema; if you run at them, close the distance, and get right up in their face, then a whip is useless. It's the same with crowbars, sticks, pipes and axes. Ever try to chop off a head with an axe when the person is two inches from your nose? Impossible, you need swinging room, yet what do these civilized victims do when confronted by a crazy killer with an axe? They run away or stand still at good swinging distance. No my friends, you need to run RIGHT AT THE KILLER! Then you kick him square in the nutz; then you cut off his thumbs. No thumbs = no weapons, no strangling, no threat. Break his kneecaps so he can't walk and then call the sheriff! If the sheriff is also an inbred cannibal, well, you know what you have to do.

On the other hand, if you'd rather cower away in the corner, you will just remind me of the NYU kid buying beer at my bodega the other night. This kid started crying like a little bitch when a cop confiscated his fake ID, which he was dumb enough to flash right while the cop as at the register!  "Call my dad! Talk to my dad! He'll tell you! He's a lawyer!" the kid screamed in fear, trying to shove his cell phone at the cop. Can you imagine? Yet that's what these slasher and cannibal movie victims do: they crawl to the phone or radio and plead and whine to the confused operator for help. They can't give coordinates where they are, or explain what's going on; they can only cry and moan and plead for the Big Mom in the sky to come and rescue them. (See my review of THE STRANGERS on Bright Lights for more of my A-list ranting on victim mentality). Honeys, Big momma ain't coming. Stop sniveling and pick up that crowbar! Our nation is doomed unless these kids realize they can't kill people for shit once the electricity cuts out and they can no longer play Xbox 7. They need to start practicing... now.

If I had more time I would clock the exact amount of crawling and screaming done by our sidetracked normies in all these movies, and how each movie handles the bridge between this wimpering and finally hacking back with a lusty howl. How much torture must be delivered before their inner Burt Reynolds shows up with his bow and arrow ala the original hillbilly rapist movie, DELIVERANCE (1972)?

Not everyone flips the switch. A lot of characters just stand there and cry and shake, and/or squeal like a pig until they're killed or rescued. This flummoxes any self-respecting killer since it's basically committing suicide because you're so afraid to die. It takes some of the fun away when they go so quietly. But the ones who fight back, how long does it take for them to transform, to shake off the dust and remember their hunter-killer roots? Half the movie? Can you imagine if you were bleeding to death in the street and rather than help you, your friend screamed and shook and went into shock at the sight of your blood? What good are friends like that, except, perhaps, as a pot roast for a needy family?

We all must learn to fight together, and to be kind and generous to our opponents, understanding that all battles are inner ones, and there is no death. We are all as actors in a flashy remake of C.H.U.D. Let us see beyond duality and false morality, let us be as Bruce Willis in PULP FICTION, picking up the samurai sword going back down into the basement. No matter what our disagreements, we can all come together when it comes to wreaking bloody vengeance on inbred yokels.


The bottom line is this, and it's something that LSD always illuminates: The true American is free of both civilization AND savagery, he can just as easily peel off someone's face as eat a peach --his is an America where the discordant blue and red state halves are finally aligned. I am American WARRIOR! Safety and civilization is hard won for you by an active military, home militia border patrols, cops and firemen and the coast guard. But when the shit hits the fan, those guys will all be busy battling the tentacled demons leaking out of the trans-dimensional rifts. You're going to have to battle the mutant cannibals of your township all on your own. Are you ready? Do you have pepper spray and a meat cleaver in your "go bag"? May I recommend a night of rural mutant cannibal movies to encourage just this sort of preparation? Zombie defense prep won't work: they're dead... they're all messed up. They can't hunt with bows and shotguns like our inbred cannibal brethren. After the apocalypse you'll want to seem tough so you can join the roving gang of mutant scavengers that initially accosts you. Service Equals Citizenship! But for now, when you see the cannibals coming, go for the whites of their eyes and don't stop swinging til all you see is red and your arm frozen in mid-blow behind rolling credits. If Wes Craven gives you any shit, tell him he's next. In the name of Kitty Genovese, he's next...

RELATED POSTS:

Collateral Torture: Vacancy
Tonight: On a very special episode of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT
The Brave One

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Surf the Maelstrom: POSSESSION (1981)

One of the cool things about Europe as opposed to the states is that if they like a trend, they keep it, and so even as late as the 1980s there were still sexy, druggy, fucked-up movies coming out, long after America had switched over to conservative backlash fear mode, VHS profits swelling it full of cheap gore and bad hair. A truly disturbing film like Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION was only released here, apparently, in a severely truncated, nearly incomprehensible edit, carved no doubt to resemble something along slasher/softcore lines for those VHS profits. But while America was cowering at home in front of the VCR with the doors locked, Europeans were still dropping acid and going to the art house cinema... and they had much more reasons to be freaked out than we ever did, namely the mass murder and destruction of World War Two (for such horror, 40 years is not so long). The USA never lost a city to carpet bombing, for example. Even now, aside from 9/11, we haven't had a lot of shit get blown up in the USA by other governments or terrorists, certainly nothing like the rampant destruction endured by Russia and Poland in WW2. Considering the trauma endured by Middle America just from watching 9/11 on TV, can you imagine watching your whole country more or less go through a giant Nazi thresher machine, while you're a child up in it? It might make you a little twisted.



Cult director Andrzej Zulawski was born during a time and place of nightly bombing raids, so the sound of falling bombs became like a lullaby for him, part of the comforts of childhood, and this weird association comes out in the full spectrum insanity of POSSESSION, for the benefit of all mankind. Naturally, if you're high on acid, or had a rainbow-colored miscarriage while trying to exit the Metro, or just tried to sit through a European history lecture while still "rolling" from the night before, POSSESSION is your movie. Because in that state of rolling, you too are freed of labeling bombing raids as bad and no bombs as god. It's all good, until you gradually realize it's all bad, because it's gnawing on your leg... and working its way up fast.

The rest, they might not dig all of POSSESSION. But for some of us, those who can--on a clear day in the San Fernando Valley--still hear colors and see sounds, a film like POSSESSION makes us realize that the ancient history of the human race is all present in the current moment, clattering on the kitchen floor of our collective mind, like a dropped casserole dish that grows Rob Bottin spider legs on contact with linoleum, and unresolved European border tensions take their toll on later generations later the way wings of butterflies in Jersey create tsunamis in Japan, even when they're still cocooned.

Knowledge of European history and mindsets is important to really dig Euro-horror, and even art films like Krzysztof Kieślowski's semi-redundantly-titled and, relatively overpraised "Three Colors Trilogy," which I never would have like had not my Argentine filmmaker ex-wife been around to explain things, Similarly there's bound to be some bizarre iconographic disconnect if our knowledge of post-war European social psychology is incomplete when it comes to these deep trenches of druggy sophisto shock. Are the two versions of Adjani's character in the film--the helpful nurturing babysitter/teacher and the monster-loving schizophrenic--a before/after Russian occupation thing? Is the monster the 'Big Other' of communism? When did the Wall come tumbling down? Wait, that was Germany. But West Germany is where this film is set. Yikes. The point is.... the point is sharp... sharply doled.

The point is that if you're at all like me, the type of crazy psychedelic surfer who used to watch the R. Bud Dwyer suicide tape over and over, in quiet awe, like a baby with their first peek-a-boo game (one split second Dwyer's in the room, and then BAM - he is completely gone - where'd he go?), well, even then that prolonged miscarriage scene might be too much. But DAMN does Adjani go for it. She's got more gusto in this single scene than most actresses muster in their entire careers.


Perhaps the only way to really understand and love this film is to be temporarily insane yourself, or at least to remember what it's like to have the terrifying freedom of flying fast and loose atop the ever-inward spiral of the maelstrom and have the experience now forever etched in your Silver Surfer memory. I'm thinking of Poe's story "A Descent into the Maelstrom," wherein a sailor finds himself on a damned ghostly boat hovering ever on the edge of a vast never-ending whirlpool wave. Our hero eventually escapes and is rescued only to find his ship mates no longer recognize him: "My hair, which had been raven-black the day before, was as white as you see it now. They say too that the whole expression of my countenance had changed." Sometimes that change of countenance has to happen: you've seen too much; you've peered beyond the veil and the veil has left its gnarly mark.



Such things happen all the time, to those who dare to take the voyage into the maelstrom or walk that yellow "brick" road. Some of us are called to the curtain and bid look beyond, and some do, and they get white hair, if not a diploma. I've never seen a film before or since that made white such a violently post-modern wrenching force (not even in Kieślowski's WHITE or Argento's TENEBRE) except maybe in a humorous and romantic way, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, wherein white swallows up whole bookstores and kitchens of Jim Carey's memory.



The landscape of POSSESSION could be summed up in terms of SUNSHINE's mind washing machine, with Sam Neill trapped in inescapable loops with the same woman in different forms, with Winslet's hair changes and mood swings being the perfect anagram for Adjani's split self of nurturing mom and blazing insane nightmare woman, shrieking and miscarrying the whole final chapter of PLEASANTVILLE, bringing gushing color to drippy urban blight interiors and bleached out apartment complexes and corporate headquarters. What makes Neil's character such a good secret agent (his day job, apparently) is his ability to ride this tide of lunacy around him. Sometimes going under, sometimes rising above, he's always more or less on the crest of that Poesy maelstrom.

Oh yeah, a word on Sam Neil, whom I never liked much in films like DEAD CALM or THE PIANO... though that's inevitably why he's often cast, there's just something about him that if you're a dog you'd want to bark at him. Often his characters need to be cockblocked by some younger, looser man, i.e. Harvey Keitel, Billy Zane, even Jeff Goldblum, so his innate petulance has context. He bristles well, though, and plays insane with a giddy grace that makes you want to keep an eye on him so he doesn't suddenly appear behind you.

Whoa, bro, now that I do the math I realize Neill hadn't even yet tried to compete with Zane or Keitel when this film was made. 1981, the same year he rocketed to the bottom as the adult Damien in OMEN III: THE FINAL CONFLICT -- at the request of co-star James Mason who loved him in MY BRILLIANT CAREER! Now we realize the inevitable truth, it's all James Mason's fault and it makes sense, since Mason too is a guy who you can never quite trust no matter how refined and loquacious his character is onscreen. Well, maybe you do trust him for a few reels, but then he takes that cortisone again and he's at you with a knife, thinking you're his son, or mighty Caesar. Sometimes you can't get at the audience with a knife, so you have to use the only thing you can find, and sometimes that thing is named Sam Neill. POSSESSION stabs us with him until even the sound of Stukas and Messerschmitts bombing us to hell is like a soothing nursery school lullaby.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Killing diese Kindern: TRICK 'R TREAT (2007)


With its ingeniously interlocked multiple story narrative and eliptical framework, TRICK-R-TREAT is the CRASH, or even PULP FICTION of horror films: Dylan Baker rocks his HAPPINESS cred as the sort of dad who packs razors into candy bars, then "does things" with the dead fat kid on the doorstep. His next-door neighbor is a hilariously game (and putty nosed) Brian Cox, who has to tangle with the crazy little demon child, Sam (seen on the posters), and that's not all: there's innocent virgin little Red Riding Hood Anna Paquin and her crazy buxom friends out looking to "score" while a vampire works his way towards them, and meanwhile a group of kids is headed off to the fog enshrouded quarry where a busload of Lechter-esque psycho-children did plummet years ago. It's all given the comic book framing and gorily ironic climaxes we've come to expect from horror anthology films, but a lot more besides, at times maybe even too much. The movie studios do many baffling things, but no worse in recent memory is their shelving of this dynamo Halloween insta-classic! Why did it get shelved? Probably because, um, they kill a lot of kids in it? Awww! HAW HAW!

I love anything that makes studio heads "uncomfortable" and slaughtering children in horror films is supposed to do just that. Meanwhile of course, torture adults for hours in tedious scenarios and the ratings board barely bothers to slap an R on you. Why are the SAW movies always so successful on Halloween? They have nothing to do with fall, as far as I know. It's because they have the field all to themselves, since the other studios are chumps. I've never actually seen any of the SAW movies, but I've been forced to endure their dispiriting trailers and soul-crushing subway posters. I remember when anti-porn activists would put up pictures of violent torture porn in front of their tables on the street and I always thought it was so horrific, it's like, great, children walking by can see this, and they can't really otherwise, so you crazy ladies are actually spreading the very thing you seek to condemn.

Meanwhile TRICK 'R TREAT is a life (and death) affirming gas with almost no torture porn, just lots of fun, crazy, Halloween-empowering spookshow ghoulshit! So what if it's a little overstuffed with elaborate pumpkins and set decor and adds up to less than the sum of its parts, and leaves the fate of a poor doggy all but forgotten? That last part does bug me, but you can't ever perfect everything to have.


I mean, let's face facts: a lot of anthology horror films suck, and why? In my opinion they don't invest much care on the sometimes lengthy set ups for the shock twist endings. In other words, they're not in the moment: they presume no one is paying attention to the character development and just waiting for the pay off, so why bother crafting good shots or decor or characters? TRICK 'R TREAT is a film where every moment counts. Writer-director Michael Dougherty (he wrote X-MEN 2) makes it the kind of thing that can turn you completely around on Halloween and horror films, the way THE WARRIORS can turn you around on urban grime!


The good news is that all this shelving and sitting on it has helped the film turn into something of a cause celebre with the geek circuit (it screened at a lot of horror and monster conventions), and apparently the DVD pre-sold well enough that a sequel is in the works, or at least running through Dougherty's mind.

So if you really wanted to love CREEPSHOW but just couldn't shake the feeling that it was all too trashy and predictable (aside from the "I want my cake, Bedelia!" opener), then ; take off your mask and lie down. Dougherty has a comfortable coffin all warmed up for you, and idling...

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Bad Acid's Greatest: 70s Paranoid Feminism Edition


"White guys take acid. White guys take acid and go see the Exorcist." -- Richard Pryor (Saturday Night Live, season 1, Dec. 1975)
I was just eight years old when Pryor said that on my new favorite show, Saturday Night Live. Even then I "got it" - white guys were sick thrill seekers for whom extreme horror (and THE EXORCIST was considered the ne plus ultra extremis for the time) wasn't enough, we had to boost it up with this dangerous mind-melting drug, LSD. We liked to plunge into the heart of darkness abyss with eyes wide open, screaming. Pryor had yet to set himself on fire from freebasing and he was way ahead of the curve as far as openly discussing, live on TV, an array of drug effects without  condemnation. He made me want to be that brave. He planted the seed for this site. I was naturally far too scared and too young to even think about seeing THE EXORCIST but I never forgot Pryor's statement. As a white man I knew seeing EXORCIST on acid was my destiny. Twenty years later, at home alone with a VHS, that destiny was fulfilled.

Now, if you think The EXORCIST would be less scary on acid then you don't understand acid. You might be afraid of your shoe, but no film can tap an unconscious dread that's already tapped. In point of fact, EXORCIST becomes funny on acid, if the film is no longer riding a zeitgeist wave of shock, which on acid you can tap into like an electric socket. The film was still in theaters when Pryor said those words, and it was considered the ultimate test of courage to go see it even dead-straight. It was considered cursed in a way, like the Samara's RING video (see my 2007 opus, Mecha Medusa and the Otherless Child.)

A good acid trip can change your life forever. You transcend notions of time and history. You notice how how we're all one giant orgasmic organism of consciousness that transcends illusions of time, space, and permanence. You realize that you're in a cosmic prison and only love can set you free, and it does... until around Tuesday, when you wake up depressed, the big payback for your endorphin expenditure. But for just awhile there's this exaggerated awareness that transcends the mundane minutiae of your setting. Everything is alive with potential danger and it's impossible to judge a true threat from a misidentified everyday happening. Someone pulls out a pen, and you jump as if it was a sword. Someone pulls out a sword, you laugh as if its a rubber chicken. Someone pulls out a rubber chicken, you suddenly get very serious... what are they hiding?

Now if it's a bad acid trip, on the other hand, all you see is dying and how humans are like decaying blood bags floating through a knife factory. Everyone's just waiting to be punctured, oblivious to their decay. A horror film seems relatively sobering by contrast; you feel every stab on the screen more vividly than you would if you were really stabbed (if you were tripping). It's cathartic because it distracts you from your own mortality, which thanks to acid is now staring you in the face like a member of the audience in a black robe who wont move his scythe so you can sit down. In that state you probably wouldn't even notice if you yourself were stabbed by some dope addict behind you in the Times Square grindhouse. You'd probably apologize for getting in the way of their knife, never harboring them any grudge.


The best 1970s horror films capture this metaphysical disconnect, the thousand yard stare of those gone beyond (or to Vietnam) and back again and the way not knowing if things are real or not can make you delusional. In LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1972, above) a schizophrenic young woman and her condescending bald husband (and a third wheel Meathead-type) move into a big old Victorian house out on an island off of New England, to "get away from NYC" which overstimulates the emotionally fragile and empathic Jessica (Zohra Lampert); she hears strange whispers in her head, and has an eerie interest in making brass rubbings at old graveyard. She comes to the New England island where their new home is riding in the back of a hearse! When she sees a barefoot child staring at her in the graveyard she's scared but once other people see the child, she smiles and acts like it's a personal victory; her fear of being thought of as nuts overrides her fear of the supernatural. When she doesn't know the right way to react, and we feel her pain, especially if we've ever had the LSD world tour of schizophrenia that is a bad acid trip.


Made at a time when psychedelic drugs had changed the face of American culture, LET'S SCARE .... DEATH (or LSD!) is nothing short of elegant in the way it blurs the line between subjective and the “real" to demonstrate how paranoia can bend the nature of reality itself, exposing even the most realistic objectivity as a paranoid conspiracy. Polanski set the bar high for this in ROSEMARY, by having Mia Farrow's paranoia be utilized to cast doubt on the reality of her situation (she's hallucinating!) at the same time as we know the supernatural is behind it all. Polanski and Jessica prove you can unsplit the difference between the real and the delusional, and that in fact, the difference is--as quantum physics proves--literally all in your head either way. Terrifying yet intelligent, supernatural yet psychological, poetic yet realistic... and just plain straight-up spooky, LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH has it all. Even the enigmatic Dr. Mystery agrees with me from his Zombie Bloodbath blog: At once a fine example of the 1970s American film; a post-Manson, post-Altamont cultural fear of post-1960s life; a compassionate and empathetic portrayal of mental illness; a fine character study; and a freaky-ass scary movie, Let's Scare Jessica to Death should be more widely seen.

One thing Altamont taught us was that following your lovelight too trustingly can really lead you down some dark dangerous corners. That's what the LSD horror movie is all about, in fact I think it can be broken down into a few key points:

1. A lead character who can't distinguish reality from fantasy, leading to ambiguity (is she really trying to kill me? Or is she coming onto me? Or am I just nuts?)
2. A feeling of helpless dependence on the establishment gradually giving way as said patriarchy collapses.
3. The "pod people" feeling, that those around you don't understand or are in on some massive conspiracy. They're all laughing at you, or planning to replace you.
4. Fear of children going wild or becoming possessed or endangered or a threat and not knowing how to save them, stop them, or get away from them.
5. Feminist subtext!



THE EXORCIST plays to nearly all these phenomena, as we slowly are made to realize the patriarchy has no clue how to tame the wild unconscious of a fatherless girl as she reaches the age of menstruation and poltergeist projection. Ditto CARRIE (1976), where again a fatherless child (Sissy Spacek) has to deal with menstruation issues and the latent unearthly powers they bring. In EXORCIST, the single mom (Ellen Burstyn) is the hero; in CARRIE, the single mom (Piper Laurie) is the villain, and for my mind, CARRIE is the more painful of the two to watch, just because poor Carrie has nowhere to turn; not even home life can help, as her insane mom is waiting to dispense draconian punishments in the name of keeping Carrie's soul "pure." At least Ellen Burstyn in THE EXORCIST is, like, cool. But at the same time Carrie has her night of vengeance and dies to fight another day. All Linda Blair can hope for is a level seven memory wipe.



Aside from devouring moms, devil children, and traumatic menstruation, feminist heroines had to contend with their disbelieving, condescending husbands. THE STEPFORD WIVES (above, 1975, from the novel by ROSEMARY scribe Ira Levin) finds Katherine Ross trying to avoid being replaced by a passive android after her robotics engineer husband moves them into a closed, flower-strewn upscale community. In THE SENTINEL (1977), fashion model Christina Raines is roped into becoming a zombie nun on behalf of those who would keep the demons in their place. Similarly, fashion photographer Faye Dunaway finds herself seeing through the eyes of her would-be killer in EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978), as a kind of punishment for her masculine fascination with violence. In short, women in these 70s horror films find freedom from patriarchal conscription to be hard won and hard kept, and they often wind up even deeper in the shit for trying to be free (i.e. LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, 1977), as if what awaits women who reach beyond the white picket fence is a freedom to succumb only to pagan sacrifice.

A really cool and relevant TV movie, I think (my parents made me go bed before I could see the ending), that is currently unavailable on DVD, is THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME (1978) starring Bette Davis and a very young Michael O'Keefe and Rosanna Arquette. This one is awesome because it's not a patriarchy, but a matriarchy! The women rule things and make, um, sacrifices? to ensure the harvest? You dig? Camille Paglia-style? We wouldn't see another good matriarchy movie for another couple decades (i.e. JOHN CARPENTER'S GHOSTS OF MARS ) so for god's sake, send the harvest home... to DVD! Tell me you read this and I'm not just talking to a voice in my head from taking too much acid while watching... you know... the world turn like a worm through an empty skull socket universe!

Monday, October 05, 2009

Great Acid Docs: SALVADOR DALI: A SOFT SELF-PORTRAIT (1972)


A timeless made-for-70s TV classic of countercultural madness - this shoe captures a crazy "happening" of Dali's, which Orson Welles narrates with bemused awe. Old Dali is kind of what Welles would like to be, a complete nut, but Welles always had the dual edge of being a rampant hedonist. Still he makes it seem like Dali just snaps his fingers and a huge crowd of attractive, barely dressed local hippie children come a runnin' to sing and dance and parade around with Dali leading the way holding a giant papier mache rhino head and completely lovingly straightfaced deadpan serious! If Dali were to laugh or act foolish he'd ruin the effect, but since he carries his egotistic self-importance to such lengths he shows an acute aware of comedic timing and genius rivaling perhaps only Jack Benny.



Dali Salvador A Soft Self Portrait by le-pere-de-colombe

 Meant as a one-hour special for network TV and done in the heady early 70s style of shows like the Leonard Nimoy-narrated IN SEARCH OF... the show's bombastic library music cues and Dali's endless monologues of broken twisted meta-language get on the nerves after awhile, no matter what your substance. It takes the old duffer about five minutes to say: "The only crazy thing about Dali is that he is... not crazy... at all!" But as far as acid culture goes, this man set the bar high and early. Even in 2009, hippies would probably flock from all over the world at a snap of his fingers... even if they were skeleton zombie fingers due to Dali's TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD style resurrection, and that's probably not far off... if you know what I mean.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Acid's Greatest #19: Brother Sun Sister Moon (1972)

In 1968 one of the key films of the budding counterculture was Franco Zeffirelli's adaptation of Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET. Featuring genuinely hot young actors--as opposed to established stars like the 1936 Leslie Howard-Norma Shearer version. In Zeffirelli's '68 edition, the tale of love destroyed by violent family feuding proved a zeitgeist-snatching analogy for our Vietnam state of mind, one filled with beautiful photography and beautiful people. The film was a huge hit and Zeffirelli decided to follow it up with a similar period hippie piece, BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON in 1972. Based on the early life of Saint Francis it was a film specifically designed to click with the counterculture youth market.  But the hippie wave had crested by 1972 and kids had become suspicious of anyone intentionally trying to click with their demographic, especially if they were old and Italian and thought we'd dig hearing a whole soundtrack full of Donovan singing medieval folk tunes with nary a trace of insincerity or heaviness.

Vibrant and full of amore' as Zeffirelli's style naturally was, SISTER MOON made committed the sin of trying too hard, becoming so flower-power guileless that the counterculture could only laugh from their aloof new vantage points. Peace and love? no thanks man! Jimi dead, Janis dead, Altamont, Kent State, the Democratic National Convention, Vietnam, our hippie powers of flowers are like totally useless against their lock step minds. Better just climb up the mountain and watch it burn. Watch anything, in fact, except another goddamned scene of smiling youths running towards each other in slow mo dissolves through fields of flowers. By then slow mo flower fields running was cliched beyond all reason, having been run aground by endless repetitions of antiperspirant commercials. The danger of trying to compete for a different country's youth market is thus illuminated: you have a different swath of TV commercials so you don't always know what images and plots have become cliche).

So the Free Love garden's once-open flowers were now curled back tight for the long night of unrest. No one even wanted to be seen in the theater where BROTHER SUN was showing, lest they be spotted, mocked, and crucified by their conformistly unconformist hipster friends.


I had to cover all Zeffirelli's films for Muze back in 1999, so I saw BROTHER SUN and the nine hour-cut of JESUS OF NAZARETH over a long weekend. I was newly sober and on a "pink cloud" so the spiritual stuff was coming through loud and clear; moved me to tears even. I was a Christian for a good five days, like a serious one, like almost went to church even. Then I wrote about it again for popmatters a few years later, and re-screened it and the giddy pink cloud had rained down into a gray socialist subtext sea:
The analogies to the Vietnam era and the anti-war movement are all too apparent . Zeffirelli's previous film, Romeo and Juliet (1968) was canonized as a counter-cultural touchstone three years previously: the tale of two attractive young hedonists being driven to suicide by their war-crazed elders was a perfect metaphor for the times. The story of Saint Francis -- paralleling those of Vietnam vets turned war protesters (à la Ron Kovic, whose autobiography was the basis for Oliver Stone's 1989 film, Born on the Fourth of July) -- must have seemed a perfect follow-up. Francis' bedridden hallucinations resemble a heavy acid trip, and his rejection of his father's plastic fantastic Madison Avenue gig for a communal church evokes images of so many young panhandlers in the Haight.
In other words, get a haircut, hippie! Oh wait he did, and a rather terrible one. Recently I saw it a third time and thought that the imagery was beautiful and full of typically dusky Zeffirelli touches, but all the "Throw away your money! All you need is love" pleading didn't even penetrate my outer layers (as effectively as, say, Heath Ledger's maniac bizarro world Saint Francis Joker in BATMAN RETURNS).

Graham Faulkner is fine and gorgeous as the solar brother, Saint Francis. His bright-eyed face contorts with spiritual ecstasy like Harpo Marx crossed with Sam Rockwell. As the lunar sister, Judi Bowker is a wispy knockout. She's so frail and beautiful with such long gorgeous blond hair that for me the biggest tragedy of Christendom is when they decide to cut it all off so she can join their muddy little holy order without having to do all that washing and combing. That's where my Christianity draws the line. Would you pick the lilies of the field right in fullest flower just to cut the heads off?  Still, if I came across this nut Francis in the fields outside Assisi, what would I do? Probably join him; lord knows I've joined up with magnetic hippies far dirtier, and for far less noble reasons. Going after God is never a mistake, people! Following your heart takes guts, and the best Christians are the ones who bow their heads to lions daily. The rest of us forget and run, and are ripped to shreds, lifetime after lifetime.

I'm sorry I badmouthed Donovan before. He's very good, in his way. But the Age of Irony bideth not his naive frailty. He's like the guy who always gets shot first because he can't keep his head down below the sunflower line (like Lee Marvin's less stoic cronies in PRIME CUT). The question is, are you ever going to get tired and stand back up and dare to look across the field, snipers and shrapnel be damned? Am I? Not me, man, but I looked once, in '87, man. Far-out!

I never really lost my love of this movie, just pretended otherwise to look cool.

And I'm ashamed.

Hallowed be thy name Frankie, but you ain't cuttin' off no more cute girls' long straight blond hair, not on my beat. And I do mean that metaphorically as well as literally. It's time to let compassion fuel our opiated veins and to open them up to our scuzzy neighbor! We are the church and the church is under a rock. Somewhere. Jesus said the church can be found under any rock. But which rock? Ladies and gentlemen, tonight we will seek that rock. Who among you would take off their clothes and follow me into the sun like Frankie did?  The church, like the song, is you so take a chance. Love thy neighbor as thyself, just don't let her corner you in the vestibule.